Review: Aldous Harding, The Powerstation, August 31, Auckland

IMG_6778It takes a lot to shush up an Auckland Saturday night crowd with a single look. But Aldous Harding was able to do that with a mere glance at the sold-out Powerstation gig celebrating our home-grown songwriter’s success.

Harding is one of the more unique voices sprouting from New Zealand’s fertile music scene these last few years. At just 29, she’s crafting the kind of edgy crossover career that wins lifelong fans while never sounding like anything other than herself. She’s mysterious and strange, sometimes sounding like an alien come down to earth, with a voice that moves from angelic highs to booming lows with ease, and song lyrics that defy easy interpretation. There’s hints of Bowie, Laurie Anderson and Kate Bush in her work, but it’s all dipped in an antipodean magic all its own. Her “Horizon” is one my favourite singles of the last few years, and her latest album “Designer” is one of 2019’s best. 

Dressed something like an extra in a 1990s Beastie Boys video, Harding took the stage alone, with a single guitar, and rather daringly played two of her most hushed, intimate numbers at the very start of the show. The crowd at the bar shushed; you couldn’t even hear glasses jingle, nothing but Harding’s chameleon voice echoing around the Powerstation. It was a masterful entrance by a performer who already clearly knows how to hold attention, and when the slower songs gave way to the full band joining her on the joyously bouncy “Designer,” it was a powerful burst of catharsis and exhaled breaths. 

Harding has developed a reputation for her striking performance style, sometimes gurning and contorting her features in confrontational ways. She was less trippy last night than some of her performances I’ve seen, but she still has a gift for upsetting audience expectations with an unexpected twist of her lips, roll of her eyes, or a kabuki-like set of gestures.  The show moved between quieter numbers and ecstatic jigs by her excellent band – there’s definitely a more pop sensibility in the songs of “Designer,” and a song like “The Barrel” is an anthem that still remains distinctly its own thing, with lyrics like “The wave of love is a transient hunt / Water’s the shell and we are the nut” rattling around your brain. 

IMG_6758I’ve been to shows at the Powerstation before for similarly stark, intimate shows and left annoyed by the singer being overwhelmed by the crash of beer bottles and the yammering of the audience. That wasn’t a problem tonight. On a cold August night, Harding felt like the hottest thing in town, something new and old at the same time blooming with an energy all its own. She closed with a magnificent, aching cover of Gerry Rafferty’s “Right Down The Line” and terrific new song, “Old Peel,” that left me with no doubt about her future. 

She wasn’t much for banter, but she gave us a glimpse of her self as she sighed with a tight smile at the encore, “What a life, eh?” Whatever strange roads Aldous Harding takes to in the future, I’ll be there. 

Film festivals are the bestivals

IMG_6510A good film festival is like a church for its acolytes – a place to find solace and enlightenment, to forget your troubles and to imagine exciting new possibilities in life. 

I’ve been going to the New Zealand International Film Festival every late July and August for more than a decade now, and every year, it’s a highlight of our rainy grey winters. I’m a mere amateur compared to some of the festivalgoers who manage 12, 15, 25 or 30 of the nearly 150 movies that unspool over two weeks or so. This year I’m managing eight, and it’s a spectrum of images and ideas, enough to make me close my eyes at night and dream of red curtains parting to see white screens.

On a Thursday I see documentaries about legendary film critic Pauline Kael and about the Satanic Temple, on a Friday I see a kiwi director’s gory delight, on a Saturday I see a documentary about a meth-addicted magician and on a Sunday I see a pulpy delight of a Korean gangster movie.

IMG_9530 KEY-2000-2000-1125-1125-crop-fillOn a Tuesday I attend a splendorous red-carpet premiere for a documentary about a Tongan family in New Zealand, which also featured brass bands, Tongan dancers, members of the Tongan royal family and grand and colourful frocks in a  dazzling, warm-hearted celebration of New Zealand’s rich Pacific culture. On a Thursday I see Aretha Franklin’s last bow and on a Friday I close it all up with a bizarre-sounding French movie about a man who falls in love with his new jacket. 

nosferatuNo wonder I can’t stop thinking about movies. It’s a kaleidoscope of cinema every year – in past years I’ve seen grand revivals of Sergio Leone movies, silent classics like “Nosferatu” and Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic, enigmatic Russian epics which demand to be seen on a gaping big screen.

And always something new or novel. Always something that just sounds like it might be interesting, whether it’s a documentary on tea in China or about the band Bikini Kill or a sprawling sci-fi epic or a thriller about zombies taking over a small New Zealand town.

Festivals like this remind me of why I’m so ambivalent about streaming. There’s great things about it, but I hate how it’s slowly eclipsing all other forms of cinema with what feels like an endless flood of cookie-cutter corporate “content.” Try finding more than a few token movies made before 1980 on Netflix. It’s much easier to sit and binge your brain on 12 episodes of some forgettable new show than it is to hunt down and figure out how to watch the greatest hits of a Billy Wilder or Robert Altman.

And while I’m down with the superheroes and the blockbusters there’s something special about gathering in the dark with a film festival crowd, whether it’s a bunch of twisted gorehounds cackling at gruesomely hilarious violence in one movie or an audience full of Tongans roaring at the quirks and jokes of their own closeknit culture.

Film festivals are the bestivals, every year a window into dozens of different worlds all flickering to life on the vast white screen. 

NZIFF: Ant Timpson’s “Come To Daddy” review

come to dady1.jpg.hashed.735adc58.desktop.story.inlineI joined a crowd of hundreds to cringe, scream and laugh last night at the premiere of NZ filmmaker Ant Timpson’s directorial debut “Come To Daddy” at the New Zealand International Film Festival, always one of my favourite weeks of the year. 

Timpson’s a national treasure for NZ film geeks, having run the Incredibly Strange Film Festival for 25 years, the 48Hours film contest and produced such slices of taboo-poking kiwi-fried film strangeness as “Deathgasm,” “Housebound” and “Turbo Kid”. Now he’s finally directed his first film, “Come To Daddy” starring Elijah Wood. 

Wood is Norval, a gawky man-child returning to visit his estranged father for the first time in decades. Dad (Stephen McHattie) lives in a surreal house on the edge of the sea, an alcoholic loner who apparently asked his son to visit but then batters and harasses him almost from the moment he arrives. “Come To Daddy” shapes up as an epic, tense battle of the wills between twitchy Norval and loathsome Dad, but then it takes a turn into stranger territory entirely. 

come-to-daddy

It’s hard to review “Come To Daddy,” a shapeshifter of a movie that boasts wild shifts in tone from melancholy to bitingly nasty wit to grind house horror. This frenzied energy will likely make it a midnight-movie perennial, but it also means it’s the kind of movie that will really appeal most to those who like to get a bit battered by their cinema. The anything-goes craziness reminds me of Peter Jackson’s earliest gorehound work before he settled down to Middle Earth’s tranquil blandness.

Timpson’s got a very confident director’s eye as “Daddy” fluidly shifts its tone. He sets the stage with lots of languid shots of beaches and trees and Wood’s endlessly fascinating face, all rounded curves and rabbity energy. There’s some shots that manage a grotesque beauty out of the ugliest moments. Some of the secondary characters aren’t as well developed as Wood and McHattie’s, and unfortunately a pivotal character introduced halfway through seems more of a sketch than a fully-rounded human being. But amidst all the chaos that unfolds on screen, “Daddy” manages to say something touching and universal about the meaning of fatherhood.

Wood is the MVP of “Daddy” and the entire movie falls apart without his committed performance. This ain’t no Frodo Baggins. His career has been driven by his extraordinarily expressive deer-in-the-headlight eyes, which “Daddy” uses to terrific effects as Norval wrestles with his anger and guilt over his relationship with his father. His Norval is dressed in awkwardly hanging hipster’s clothes, a strangely sculptural haircut and topped off with a scribbly moustache that suggests facial hair hibernating for the winter. 

Like a lot of Ant Timpson-produced films there are scenes that will have you going OHMIGODNONONO as you cringe from the screen, guiltily chuckling all the way. There’s no better way to see them than in a crowded theatre with dozens of like-minded twisted souls. It’s the kind of defiantly original movie film festivals are made to celebrate, and I hope Timpson doesn’t wait too long to direct another film.

Christchurch, 8 1/2 years after the earthquake

IMG_6315I hadn’t been to Christchurch in 10 years, and I’m not quite sure how that happened.

I’ve been out of the country nearly a dozen times in that span, but the South Island of New Zealand always seems further away. If you don’t have family or friends on ‘the mainland,’ it seems another country sometimes despite it just being an hour flight away. 

Christchurch is flatter and more British in feel than melting pot Auckland, with lots of gorgeous old stone churches and a sky full of billowing, demonstrative clouds far different than the ones up north. You can feel the cold blue influence of Antarctica, a mere few thousand kilometres south. 

Christchurch also has a regrettable reputation as New Zealand’s unluckiest place to live. The terrible events of March 15 are high in everyone’s memory, of course, but Christchurch has also had fires and earthquakes, including the deadly February 22, 2011 quake that killed 185 people. This was the first time we’d been down there since then. 

IMG_6317The signs of the 2011 earthquakes are everywhere, far more prevalent than I’d imagined they’d be almost a decade on. Downtown is dotted with vacant lots, cranes constructing new buildings, and the cracked and battered abandoned remains of those structures that haven’t been torn down yet. For every building that seems fine, there’s another that’s a dust-covered shell that looks like something from Chernobyl. The gorgeous old Christchurch Cathedral is a broken and gaping maw, like a dollhouse cross-section where you can see inside a building. Dozens of pigeons still nest in the rafters, visible to all.

Terribly movingly, there’s a humble memorial across the street from the site of the CTV building collapse which claimed 115 victims that February day. It’s a gathering of 115 white chairs, all various types and styles, across the street from the site of the collapsed building, bearing silent witness. There is a baby’s car seat there, spray-painted white, full of silent grief. There is a list of names of people of all ages and from all over the world (the building housed a language school where a lot of the victims were killed).  

You read a fair bit about all the delays that have plagued Christchurch’s recovery since 2011. It’s another thing to actually see a city, one of New Zealand’s largest, still battered and scarred from a catastrophe nearly a decade ago. 

It’s also a reminder that yesterday’s news isn’t forgotten by the people at the heart of the storm – that long after the world’s attention moves on from something, there’s building to do, homes to relocate and towers to rebuild. 

0

Martin Phillipps and the endless cool of The Chills

The-Chills-For-WebsiteIt all started with a few mixtapes.

mens-black-nz-music-month-2019-teeMy first exposure to New Zealand music was a high school girlfriend, who put Crowded House’s Temple Of Low Men on a tape and hit me right in the feels. My second a few years later was another mix tape, by a Kiwi I’d been pen pals with in the pre-internet days, of “Noisyland Music” that included bands with weird names like The Chills, The Clean, JPSE and The Verlaines. (Dear reader, I married said Kiwi and we’re coming up on our 20th anniversary this year, good god.) 

The Chills were the ones that hooked me. They didn’t sound quite like anything else this Mississippi college student was listening to, spooky and atmospheric and achingly pretty. “Pink Frost” bubbled through the cassette player in my battered VW Rabbit and it sounded like transmissions from another world. 

Songs like “I Love My Leather Jacket,” “Kaleidoscope World” and “Heavenly Pop Hit” were clever and catchy, soaked in that peculiar sense of isolation and grey-skies mysticism that music coming from an island on the bottom of the world has. Pre-internet, NZ could be a lonely, alternately stifling and cozy place, and The Chills more than anything caught that zeitgeist in their music. And that voice – lead singer/songwriter Martin Phillipps really was The Chills, and the gorgeous ache of his voice the heart of their songs. 

Since I heard those crackly mix tapes decades ago, I’ve moved to New Zealand, become a citizen, listened to a couple hundred NZ bands, great to awful, watched our Lorde and saviour take over the music world for a little while, and through it all I’ve always had a soft spot for The Chills. 

Last night we watched a wonderful new documentary, The Chills: The Triumph And Tragedy Of Martin Phillipps, which told of the ups and downs of this seminal NZ band, and featured both a Q&A and acoustic set by Phillipps afterwards. It was a great night, a full house of people who grew up with the Chills since their Dunedin days and those like me who stumbled across them on the other side of the world. 

The Chills story is that of a million other bands – scrappy beginning, a few minor hits, hard yards of global touring, and then swept up by a record label that doesn’t quite know what to do with them. Cue drugs, drink, label stoushes and a revolving door of more than 30 (!) band members in Phillipps’ orbit over the years. Yet the low-key charm and honesty of Phillipps and the band members keeps the film’s sadly common tale fresh. 

A diagnosis of Hepatitis C might have spelled the end of Phillipps’ story, but the marvellously intimate documentary has some surprises in store. It breezily moves back and forth between the Chills’ rise and fall and Martin Phillipps today, in his cluttered Dunedin home, navigating dreadful hospital visits and still trying to give the band another go. 

Best of all, it was great to see Phillipps after the show chatting with the crowd, happy and healthy after the wilderness years, well into his third act and keeping the Chills as mind-bogglingly cool as ever. He played “Pink Frost,” of course, in a haunting acoustic version, and as the chords warbled throughout the theatre I could close my eyes and almost imagine them playing again on that mix tape, a million years ago and 6,000 miles away. 

The play that never ends: ‘Hamlet’

IMG_5196Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief. — Polonious

I’ve been living in Hamlet-land for the past 8 weeks or so, a strange foggy kingdom full of ghosts and daggers and soliloquies that haunt the brain. 

As mentioned before, I’ve been volunteering at the Pop-Up Globe replica of Shakespeare’s famed theatre here in Auckland again this summer, for the third season in a row. The centrepiece of this season for me was what’s pretty much the most famous play in history, “Hamlet.”

There’s nothing like watching a play seven, eight, nine times or more to have it seep into your pores, and the Pop-Up Globe put on a marvellous version of Hamlet led by an excellent energetic Adrian Hooke in the title role (and Summer Millett as an outstanding, vivid Ophelia). Watching the show from all around the theatre, with crowds of uniform-clad school kids and groups of Shakspeare fans of all ages from 8 to 80, you can see how this enigmatic, blazing fire of a play has lasted more than 400 years. 

I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams. — Hamlet

IMG_5200As I’ve said before, I find Shakespeare bottomless – an infinity of meanings can be found in his works, and new twists reveal themselves in every new look. Hamlet is perhaps his crowning jewel as an artist, a play about a young man who asks the question every single one of us asks at some point in our lives: To be? Or not to be?

To sleep, perchance to dream: — ay, there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come? — Hamlet

During my month or so of Hamlet, I read books about the play – Harold Bloom’s erudite “Hamlet: Poem Unlimited” and Dominic Dromgoole’s very entertaining travelogue of the London Globe’s worldwide tour of the play and the meanings wrung out of it, “Hamlet: Globe By Globe.” I watched Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, based on his play which takes two minor characters and spins an entire side story out of them. On the bedside table awaiting a re-read is John Updike’s “Gertrude and Claudius,” a prequel. Hell, I even watched the unforgettable trailer for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Hamlet (from The Last Action Hero, it’s a movie that never really was, but geez how weirdly cool would that be?). Hamlet is impossible to avoid in life. 

We defy augury; there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all. — Hamlet

I’d play a mental game of just how many turns of phrase, famous titles and sayings sprang from Hamlet. It’s long enough to span its own comprehensive Wikipedia page. Hamlet is everywhere. It’s in the crazy goofy McKenzie brothers comedy “Strange Brew” I watched 117 times in the mid-1980s. The Lion King. David Foster Wallace’s novel “Infinite Jest.” The popular NZ TV series Outrageous Fortune. Philip K. Dick’s “Time Out of Joint.” Nick Lowe’s “Cruel To Be Kind” song. Hell, even a “Star Trek” movie (Part 6: The Undiscovered Country, of course). 

IMG_5582What does it all mean? After hours and hours of Hamlet this season, I’m still not quite sure.

It’s about a young man facing up to his future. It’s about revenge. It’s about lost love and death and the impossibility of a human being ever truly knowing what’s out there beyond the veil. It’s about some terrible decision-making and some mighty low-down bloody actions. In short it’s a bottomless voyage into the human experience and somehow a guy from Stratford-Upon-Avon hit upon universal themes and truths that we’re all still grappling with centuries later. It’s Hamlet, and we never finish it, not really. 

We know what we are, but know not what we may be. — Ophelia

Christchurch: How we mourn

It’s been 12 days since New Zealand’s worst terrorist attack, and some things are slowly getting back to normal. The shock has worn off and we’re surrounded by an increasing flow of hot takes; vigils that some say turned too political and all the usual suspect columnists back on their pet peeves. Hard questions are going to be asked about how it happened, and what we could’ve done. Life, despite everything, goes on.

But the signs of an outpouring of national grief, of 50 deaths on a scale that feels a lot like our tiny island nation’s own 9/11, are still all around. We’re still having national memorials – Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam is playing at one this week.

Even in my little corner of Auckland, you see signs and tributes. Piles of flowers at mosques, chalked messages on the sidewalks, signs at the roundabouts. Even on a windswept beach about as far from our bustling downtown as you can get without going for a swim, a lovely handmade memorial of colourful flags fluttering in the black sand, seashells carefully shaped into the one symbol all the bloody terrorists in the world can’t wipe out – a human heart.

IMG_5382

IMG_5383

IMG_5552

IMG_5550